Seven and a Half Short Notes on Sandy Denny


On Music


Sandy Denny
(January 6, 1947–April 21, 1978)

1) I just finished the recent Sandy Denny biography. I was very disappointed by it. In the end, she dies. In the bio that I want to read, she’s now living in a cottage in Wales and drinking only on Thursdays.

2) In 1968, Sandy Denny joined Fairport Convention, a new British band modeled on the sound of the Byrds and on American folk rock. She was twenty-one and had spent time at university and worked briefly as a nurse but was happier staying out all night at folk clubs. Fairport had already recorded an album and were modestly successful, but Sandy upped their game exponentially, not just with a voice that could stop time with a whisper but with original songs as rich and strong as the traditional ballads the band were exploring. The three albums she recorded with them in 1968 and 1969 are breathtakingly beautiful and mysterious, digging deep into British traditions and dragging them into an ecstatic and electric future. When she left to go off on her own in late 1969, first with her own group, Fotheringay, then solo, she was at the top of her game and was lost. 

3) One of the first concerts I saw when I got to London in 1970 was Fotheringay at the Roundhouse. They were the headliners. Elton John opened, then Argent, and only then did Fotheringay come on. They sounded terrific but were a bit of a comedown after Elton John, who wasn’t a known quantity yet and who hadn’t turned into a genius goofball. He was on fire, fronting a power trio, playing “Take Me to the Pilot” and “Burn Down The Mission.” Fotheringay seemed quite sedate after all that, not stiff so much as studious, as if they were taking exams. I had seen the Band at the Felt Forum in New York a few months before, and they exuded the same quiet gravity. It was like watching scientists in a laboratory. I mentioned that to Sandy Denny after the concert. “Oh, I wish I’d been there,” she sighed. She invited me over for tea.

4) When I met her, Sandy was living in South London. All the other musicians I’d met were in the North. The house was dark, but there were candles and records all over the floor and cats who eyed me suspiciously from behind the couch. Sandy was drinking white wine. Or she was drinking gin. Or she was drinking brandy. It was hard to keep track. There were glasses everywhere. And there were test pressings of Bob Dylan doing songs for others to record. She played me his version of “I’ll Keep It with Mine,” then played me a version that Judy Collins had done a few years before. Judy Collins’s version wasn’t very good. Dylan’s was good until you put it next to Sandy’s version with Fairport Convention. Then all bets were off. Dylan’s song is furiously tender, without a trace of irony. It’s a song about wanting to take on someone else’s troubles and shelter them from inevitable loss and heartbreak. Sandy’s version takes it several steps further into the realm of sin-eating and sacrifice. It goes so far beyond romantic love that it comes out the other side, into the love of a parent for their child, into the need for a savior and the need to be that savior, to give more than you have and expect nothing in return. You come away from her version totally broken and totally restored. Sanctified is not too strong a word.

5) Sandy knew she was extraordinary, but she wasn’t sure she was any good. Like most great singers, her voice knew far more than she did and kept waiting for her to catch up. The ghosts and spirits she sang about were real and holy and terrifying, and when she sang about Matty Groves, it wasn’t an old folk song anymore but was fresh gossip, dirty news from the street. It was as if she’d just been drinking with Matty’s sister at the pub and on the way back had torn her skirt. Oh, her skirt was always torn or was always a couple sizes too small. In the world of Twiggy and wispy girls in gossamer gowns, she always wanted to lose a few pounds or grow a few inches taller. And after she’d been drinking, growing a few more inches seemed the most sensible option.

6) Anyone who’s been around drink or drinkers knows that there’s a certain place you arrive at somewhere between the third and the eleventh drink, a crossroads, a calm in the middle of a storm, a place of clarity and quiet and weightlessness, between light and dark, between the promise of God’s grace and the certainty of failure, where you hold the knowledge that however sweet the song, the record will end, and just before the end, the needle will skip. That’s the place where Sandy lived full-time.

7) Sandy played in New York at The Bitter End. Jackson Browne opened for her. Solo. His first album had just come out, and he performed most of the songs from it. He was a warm and generous performer, and he seemed comfortable on stage. He seemed to know his audience and seemed like one of them. Or that was the illusion. Sandy was stiff and awkward in comparison, and she couldn’t make eye contact with the crowd. I can’t remember what she played. I remember what she didn’t play. She didn’t play “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” or “Farewell Farewell” or “I’ll Keep It with Mine.” She didn’t play “Tam Lin” or “A Sailor’s Life.” She played songs from a new album that was just out in the States. Very few people at The Bitter End were familiar with them. That included Sandy, who was still working her way through the music as if it was a menu in a Hungarian restaurant. Richard Thompson was playing guitar for her. I watched him. He was studiously counting the number of bricks on the wall behind the bar.

7 1/2) I just finished the recent Sandy Denny biography. I was very disappointed by it. In the end, she dies. In the bio that I want to read, she’s now living in a cottage in Wales and drinking only on Thursdays.


Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.